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     Volume 4 Issue 49 | June 3, 2005 |

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A Bold Voice of Islam

Yoginder Sikand

Lily Zakiyah Munir

Lily Zakiyah Munir is a leading Indonesian Muslim human rights activist. She is the director of the Jakarta-based Centre for Pesantren and Democracy Studies that works with the 'ulama and students of Indonesian Islamic boarding schools or pesantrens. The following are excerpts of an interview of Munir by Yoginder Sikand.

Q: In recent years, particularly after the events of 11 September, 2001 and the rise of numerous anti-American Islamist groups in Indonesia, there is much talk about 'liberal Islam' flourishing in Indonesia. Some institutions seeking to promote 'liberal Islam' are now being liberally funded by certain conservative Western organisations, some of which are known for their close links with the American administration. How do you look at the 'liberal Islam' project that these groups seek to promote?
A: I share many liberal values myself, and of course I am opposed to extremism and narrow understandings of religion. My answer to your question would be that the liberal Islam project as it is developing in Indonesia today is not a homogenous one. It is characterised by considerable diversity and hence it is difficult to make generalisations about it.

My point is simple. If liberal Islam aims at protecting the rights of the poor and the marginalised then I welcome it. But if, as in the case of some foreign agencies that are now funding certain 'liberal' Islamic programmes in Indonesia, the underlying agenda is to create space for liberal free-market economics and the exploitation of our country by multinational corporations and dampen any critique of imperialism and neocolonialism, then I cannot agree with it. If it remains silent on the corruption of local and global elites and, instead, trains its ire only on the Islamist extremists, as is sometimes the case, I think this is a very one-sided approach. We have to be balanced in our critique. You cannot criticise and oppose only the radical Islamists while ignoring the oppression of the elites, Western imperialism and neocolonialism and the global system of capitalist exploitation.

Q: So would you say that the 'liberal Islam' project is largely an elitist venture?
A: In some ways, yes. Funding for such projects generally comes from Western agencies, and goes to Indonesian NGOs, which are mostly led by middle-class activists. This is not emerging as a spontaneous movement from among the marginalised. This elitism is also reflected in many of the causes that several 'liberal Islam' groups take up and the issues that they ignore. So, they usually focus on countering extremist Islamist groups and also take up issues such as gender, pluralism and democracy. I don't say these issues are not important. Of course they are, but what is equally significant is that in the process other vital issues are, deliberately or otherwise, often left out, issues such as imperialism, unbridled capitalist exploitation, the World Bank-IMF-led form of 'development' that is only further widening inequalities and increasing poverty in Indonesia, and the growing influence of Christian fundamentalism globally and so on. And to add to this we have this terrible cultural invasion coming in from the West, spreading crass consumerism and hedonism and mindlessly mimicking American pop culture, in the process destroying our rich local cultures. These are equally major challenges as is radical Islamism, but I find few advocates of 'liberal Islam' taking up these issues as well. When they talk of democracy, it is limited generally to procedural or formal democracy--the one person one vote system of bourgeoise democracy--which, as we know, is not sufficient to bring about genuine economic and social democracy and social justice. This sort of formal democracy does not really challenge the established elites and the Western-dominated global system of exploitation. So, we need to talk about substantive democracy, democratic values such as social justice and protection of human rights from violation not only by radical Islamists but also by the state and by the dominant Western countries.

Another issue that I would like to draw your attention to is that some 'liberal Islam' groups that get funds from certain Western agencies seem to have bought into an elitist free-market discourse. For instance, the support given by some of them to the recent scrapping of the oil subsidy in Indonesia under World Bank-IMF pressure that has hit the poor the most.

So, this sort of 'liberal Islamic' discourse that is today being very vigorously promoted by certain conservative, even right-wing Western agencies in Indonesia, and perhaps elsewhere, too, is carefully tailored to suit the interests of the West and of local elites, because the poor hardly fit into their scheme of things. My own position is that yes, we need to be critical of Islamist extremists but we also need to simultaneously critique and oppose Western imperialism, Christian extremism and so on.

Q: So, what you are saying is that the basic agenda behind many Western agencies who are today sponsoring 'liberal Islam' projects in Indonesia is to stave off the challenge of anti-Western Islamist groups, and not to really bring about any structural changes?
A: Exactly. They certainly won't sponsor any projects that might challenge free-market capitalism, multinational corporations that have such a stranglehold over the Indonesian economy or American hegemony! You won't find them funding projects to critique hedonism and consumerism! Now, since it is unfortunately difficult for most Indonesian NGOs to get local funds, they generally rely on Western agencies that have their own agendas. I think we really need to be careful that when taking foreign funds we don't serve an anti-people agenda. It really is up to our own conscience how we use the money. There is always the danger that idealistic youth who really want to change the system and do something concrete for the poor might get co-opted, with access to foreign funds, trips abroad and foreign jaunts organised by NGOs funded by Western agencies. And once that happens it is rare for them to speak out against the structures that generate poverty and exploitation and the domination of local and global elites.

Q: In the writings and activities of certain Western-funded 'liberal Islamic' groups in Indonesia Islamist radicalism is seen simply as an ideological 'deviation' whose genesis is located in 'deviant' interpretations of Islam, rather than in concrete social structures. Do you agree?
A: Yes, I agree with you to a large extent. The issue of Islamist radicalism is often seen in a sociological vacuum, as if it comes out of nowhere. The fact, however, is that Islamist radicalism cannot be understood without situating it in the context of the broader political economy, and as resulting from certain local and global social, economic, cultural and political structures and processes of domination and exclusion. There can be no smoke without fire. So, unless these structures and processes are tackled, how can you expect radicalism to disappear? Focusing only on the phenomenon of radicalism and ignoring its underlying structural causes will only exacerbate the problem and delay and further complicate its solution. Of course, dominant elites, both in Indonesia and in the West, do not want to recognize this as they themselves are deeply implicated in these structures that give rise to the phenomenon of radicalism as a reaction or response, and that is why you will find that many among them would insist that Islamist radicalism is a result simply a deviant understanding of Islam and that it has nothing to do with exploitation, predatory capitalism, western consumerist culture, or imperialism and so on. And then one must also remember that extremism and terrorism are not easily defined, and it all depends on who does the defining and why. So, one must ask, how and why does Saddam Hussain come to be defined as a 'terrorist', while America's brutal invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan (where I just spent six months), which has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people, does not qualify to be called an act of terror?

Q: Some Indonesian scholars have also made interesting contributions to the ongoing debates on the status of Muslim women. What are your views on this?
A: Yes, a number of our 'ulama have taken up this issue and have made some interesting developments in the direction of gender justice, although many remain wedded to the patriarchal notions. My own position, as an advocate of gender justice, is that what we should be seeking is substantive, as opposed to simply formal, equality. So, let men lead the prayers in the mosques, but let women's role in shaping the family be recognised. I am not concerned with the form of family leadership but its substance. So, today, we have a number of families whose principal bread-earner is the woman, and so, some argue that logically she should be regarded as the head or at least the co-head of the family, because, they say, male leadership is conditional on providing for the family and is not categorical. I support this stance, and this demand was put forward to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which, however, struck it down.

While we are today witnessing the emergence of new and more progressive understandings of Islam on the gender question we still have to contend with the challenge of patriarchal notions that are sought to be given an 'Islamic' guise in the name of revival of tradition, as exemplified, for instance, in the agenda of the radical Islamist groups. For them, the hijab becomes a symbol of Islam, not men's beards, so they demand that women don the hijab while they remain silent on men wearing jeans and T-shirts, not seeing this as threatening Islam. I myself wear the hijab, but I resent the way in which some Muslim groups reduce it simply into a meaningless symbol. For instance, there was this government official who issued an ordinance that women in his town had to wear hijab and later organised a 'Muslimah Fashion Show', with hijab-clad women parading on the ramp. Or, for instance, this other government official who imposed hijab on all Muslim women in his area, and whose wife, who usually wore fancy Western clothes when traveling outside, went around distributing hijabs to poor women. This man was later arrested for massive corruption! And you also have the development of a fashion industry centred on the hijab that caters to the elites, with fancy and exorbitantly priced hijabs on sale in special boutiques, which really robs the hijab of its essence as a social leveler. I think this tendency to reduce shari'ah to the hijab is really pathetic. This obsession with the form, as distinct from the spirit, of the shari'ah often ends up missing out on basic issues of economic and social justice.

A contemporary understanding of the Qur'an and the shari'ah would entail focusing on their underlying spirit rather than simply going by their letter alone. Using this approach one could argue for changes in certain laws related to what is called the mu'amilat or social transactions, though, of course, there can be no change in religious rituals ('ibadat). So, for instance, some Indonesian feminist Islamic scholars believe that women and men should have equal inheritance rights. They recognise that the Qur'an prescribes for daughters half the share of sons, but they argue that this law has to be seen in the context of seventh century Arabia, when not many women engaged in economic activities outside the home and when men were the principal bread-earners. By giving them a share of the inheritance the Qur'an sought to provide women with justice. That means the underlying intention of the inheritance rules must be justice, and today, if we are to do justice to women they should get the same share as men, because many women now work outside the home and contribute to the household expenses. This means that by sticking to the letter of the Qur'an and ignoring its underlying spirit we may not be able to fulfill the intention of the Qur'an, which is justice. This calls for another startling difference between Indonesia and many other Muslim countries is that here you will find women working in almost every sector of the economy, including even hijab clad women. The majority of the Indonesian 'ulama allow for this, even in cases where unrelated women and men work together, provided they maintain their modesty. This is not a problem at all for most of them, unlike in some other Muslim countries.

Yoginder Sikand is a freelance writer. He has done his PhD in Islamic History from Royal Holloway, University of London.
Lily Munir can be contacted at cepdes@hotmail.com
Source: Islaminterfaith.org/ Shobak news


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